The Serious Business of Holiness
I remember as a child seeing pictures of saints in books, paintings, holy cards, and stained glass windows. Every so often it was a three-dimensional image, making them even more real still. And I was always fascinated by how serious they looked. You know the look—serene and intensely focused on something in the distance, a flawless complexion radiating from within, hair perfectly cut and styled, that slight head tilt as though listening for something none of us would ever hear, immaculate and elegantly draped robes, pressed and pleated in all the right places, hands raised aloft in praise or reverently joined in prayer, and well-groomed toenails or suitable footwear.
I imagined then that being a saint was serious business. I mean, all the apostles were saints, and tradition tells us they all died martyrs for the faith—Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, Thomas, all but John. But he was Simon Peter’s brother, the beloved disciple; he wrote a gospel and a few other New Testament letters.
A few were associated with Jesus historically, women and men of outstanding virtue—his mother Mary, Joseph his foster-father, John the Baptist, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary.
Then many more were also martyrs especially in the first few centuries of heavy and widespread persecution—Stephen, Justin, Cyprian, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicity, Sebastian, Agnes, Ignatius of Antioch, Lucy, Cecilia. Eventually,
Christianity was legalized, and people weren’t put to death for the faith as much. Instead, many from then on were priests—John Vianney, Francis Xavier, Anthony of Padua, Philip Neri, Bernardine of Siena, John Baptiste de la Salle, Vincent Ferrer, Damien de Veuster.
Some were religious women—Catherine of Siena, Ursula, Angela Merici, Brigid, Katherine Drexel, Marianne Cope, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Teresa of Calcutta.
Some were bishops—Timothy, Titus, Ambrose, Augustine, Francis de Sales, Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine.
And some were popes—Clement, Sixtus, Gregory, Leo, Pius, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II.
Some were also founders of great religious orders—Benedict, Scholastica, Francis, Clare, Dominic, Ignatius of Loyola.
A few were reformers and mystics—Antony of Egypt, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross.
Some were authors and theologians—Jerome, Bede, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas More, Therese of Lisieux.
A few served in royal courts. Occasionally there would be a secular ruler, a king or queen, who was often a champion of the poor, or a defender of the faith—Constantine, Helena, Justinian, Wenceslaus, Ladislaus, Elizabeth of Hungary, Elizabeth of Portugal, Louis IX, Edward the Confessor, Margaret of Scotland.
And some among them would renounce their position and wealth and dedicate the rest of their lives to solitude, study, and prayer. And yes, some of them were ordinary people, the married couple Maria and Isidore, the young people Rose of Lima, Maria Goretti, Dominic Savio, Jose Luis Sánchez del Rio.
But sainthood still seemed like serious business because a number of them were never “saint” material from the beginning, until circumstances brought them face to face with some formidable challenge that they embraced and are forever remembered for just one shining moment. Some were definitely slackers, actually spending portions of their youth wandering aimlessly, associating with the wrong crowd, even engaging in morally questionable behavior, then experiencing a profound conversion, and transforming drastically into outstanding examples of Christian living.
But there was an intensity to every single one of them. Besides, they would face great scrutiny, the words they spoke, the books they wrote, the way they lived, their temperament and demeanor. Nothing about them was ever really ordinary. It appeared as though they were always destined for the glory of sainthood, and they were always receptive to the Holy Spirit, and they knew to face their trials and persecutors with confidence and strength.
We call on them to intercede for us before God, believing they already possess a place at the eternal wedding banquet. We look to them to assist us with their wisdom and example, to encourage our efforts, and to inspire us to excellence. They succeeded, we should at least try. Perhaps we can ride their coattails. Maybe they will throw a few choice morsels our way. Who knows? They might even let us in some back entrance.
Clearly, getting to heaven is a top priority. And although sacred scripture has a way of lifting our hearts and minds to God, with descriptions of the heavenly liturgy, epic battles between good and evil, and a vision of the new Jerusalem, we also know it will be more difficult than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, that it would involve entering through the narrow gate, that it would mean taking up our cross and following in Jesus’ footsteps.
But salvation is ultimately not something that depends on us. Yes, it will involve our willing acceptance and response. But a greater portion of it is God’s doing. “Salvation comes from our God,” cried the assembly of the saints standing before the throne and the Lamb. Salvation is God’s work. It is God alone who saves us.
The short passage from the first letter of John assures us that it is the Father who bestows his love on those he chooses to call his children. Yet in the first chapter of his gospel, John writes it is those who accept Jesus who are given power to be children of God. Putting it all together, God reveals himself to us in Jesus and bestows on us his gift of faith. And by accepting Jesus, that is by listening to his Word, responding in faith, and living by his teaching, we become children of God. Sounds like a manageable process. Circumstances will differ for each. But God is still the one alone who saves.
Jesus reminds us in the beatitudes that possessing the kingdom of heaven is our ultimate and highest priority. The great multitude of women and men in the book of Revelation who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb are so many success stories for us to not lose courage. At first glance, the 144,000 from Israel—which is a symbolic number, and the great multitude that no one can count present opposing images. But they actually tell us heaven hasn’t yet run out of room. Instead, we keep our hearts undefiled and our heads high, enduring want, grief, inconvenience, hunger and thirst, opposition, resentment, knowing it all must pass.
“Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says, “for your reward will be great in heaven.”The saints I remembered in my childhood often looked so serious and stern in pictures and paintings and stained glass windows. How can we not be moved to rejoice and be glad in the assurance of a place at the eternal wedding feast? Since salvation is God’s doing entirely, we need only persevere in extending compassion, patience, forgiveness, and healing. And holiness is definitely more attractive and inviting when joy is convincing and gladness genuine, that which only God gives to those he chooses to be his children. The joy and gladness that is evident in our living is what attracts others because we will not be able to convince anyone if we ourselves are not first convinced.
Rolo B Castillo © 2018
Revelation 7: 10
1 John 3: 1
John 1: 12
Matthew 5: 12